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French Toast

Chance and Necessity

by Jacques Monod, translated by Austryn Wainhouse
Knopf, 199 pp., $6.95

The rhetorical, disputatious, ideological cultural life in France (as Mary McCarthy recently reminded us) obeys different rules from those in les pays anglophones. To Jean-François Revel, exaggeration can even become “an artistic form” in itself; yet this fact is concealed by the belief that French is the supremely logical language. So, however ideological their aims, intellectual debates in France always affect a strict Cartesian form, according to the demands of the esprit géométrique. The Priest and the Schoolmaster who symbolize French intellectual life still assault each other with syllogisms. As a result, Parisian best-sellers are particularly likely to be misunderstood by Anglo-Saxons, who read their debating points as assertions, their exaggerations as dogmas, and their oratory as rigorous proof.

To make matters worse, intellectual debate in France has always been exceptionally resistant to outside ideas. Voltaire could not get anyone in Paris to take Newton’s Principia seriously until half a century after its original publication, while Darwin’s theory of variation and natural selection has taken even longer to gain acceptance. By 1859, in fact, French bien-pensants scientists and philosophers were already hostile to evolutionary ideas. The term évolution implied to them the unidirectional, progressivist view of cosmic development found in Herder and Lamarck: a historicist conception, belonging as much to natural theology as to natural science, and embracing the whole development of the universe—prebiotic, organic, and social—in a single, sweeping trajectory. Throughout the subsequent hundred years, most French intellectuals have continued to understand the term in this wholly non-Darwinian sense, seeing as the most representative “evolutionary” thinkers such men as Herbert Spencer and Friedrich Engels, Teilhard de Chardin and Roger Garaudy.

Jacques Monod’s book Le Hasard et la Nécessité has to be read against this background. Monod, who has been the leading cellular biochemist at the Institut Pasteur since 1954, gave an inaugural lecture at the College de France in November, 1967, which was all that such a lecture should be: a striking call for the reintegration of fundamental biological theory with a purified “natural philosophy,” and for its application to human affairs. While philosophers were still fiddling away at out-of-date problems, he argued, intellectual changes were going on under their noses, notably in biology, which should be leading them to reformulate their very questions in a new frame. In particular, he called for a revival of interest in the mechanisms of intellectual history, which lead to “a natural history of the selection of ideas,” and so make the evolution of human culture as intelligible, in its own way, as Darwinism made organic speciation and evolution.1

Coming from one of the first generation of French biologists to have fully grasped Darwinian ideas, this appeal was highly attractive, especially to those philosophers of science who had already been moving in the same direction for other reasons. Surely, philosophers cannot seriously tackle today the epistemological problems about the formation of concepts first posed by John Locke nearly 300 years ago, without paying attention to the work of Vygotsky and Piaget; nor can they hope to see a sure way past Descartes’s mind-matter dichotomy while ignoring twentieth-century changes in the physics of matter, and the new insights into “higher cortical functions” achieved by Luria and Pribram. So one can only applaud Monod’s declaration that “one of the most urgent duties of scientists and philosophers” was “to contribute to a reunification of their two fields.”2 It is time to abandon the seventeenth-century picture of man as separate from nature, mind as separate from matter, and to locate the problems of epistemology once again within a unified picture of the physical, animal, and human worlds.

Monod’s full-scale restatement of his views has now appeared, in English translation, as Chance and Necessity. It has sold more than 200,000 copies in the original French; it is declared by the publishers to be “a profoundly radical philosophical statement,” with implications “comparable to Einstein’s challenge to Newtonian physics”; it claims that the example of science alone can cure the mal de l’âme that is sapping the social and cultural life of our time. Yet Monod’s most sympathetic English-speaking readers—above all, his prospective philosophical allies—can regard it only as a debacle.

Chance and Necessity is a debacle as it affects the cause that Monod himself regards as so urgent and pressing, the reunification of natural science and serious philosophical analysis into a new, biologically aware “natural philosophy.” For the parochial character of Monod’s own intellectual milieu has trapped him into denouncing all philosophy and all philosophers alike, in terms that were scarcely pardonable even when expressed in French declamatory prose, and that now acquire for English readers a tone of bland arrogance that only serves to expose Monod’s ignorance both of the history of philosophy and of the character of philosophical issues themselves.

Certainly the scientifically minded philosophers whose good will Monod most needs to enlist, if the implications of contemporary biological thought are going to make themselves felt within philosophy, will only be put off by the tone of this book. They will have difficulty in sorting out the important biological points that can properly contribute to contemporary philosophy—at least as “philosophy” is understood outside Paris—from the mass of irrelevant anti-philosophical rhetoric. If this is how one of the most liberal-minded molecular biologists finds it natural to write about philosophy, one can only reflect, then the Alexandrian fragmentation of intellectual life, which Monod so deplores, may well be irreversible.

Monod has three main arguments. 1. Darwinism is incompatible with any theological or progressivist interpretation of the origin of species. The basic mechanisms by which novelties—mutations and the like—enter an organic population (the “Chance” of his title) are entirely independent of the factors in its environment and manner of life (“Necessity”) that selectively ensure the survival of the best adapted forms within the population. Properly understood, that discovery undermines all “unidirectional” views of natural history and development, as well as the ideologies built upon them. The deeper significance of molecular biochemistry lies precisely in this: that, having elucidated the exact mechanisms by which the inherited characteristics of organisms are both transmitted genetically and expressed in the growth of the organism, it has placed that fundamental Darwinist insight beyond doubt. So contemporary biologists have finally discredited the “cosmic animism” of traditional natural theology as well as the “vitalist” belief that the development of the physiological structure of organisms involves the operation of “non-material” agencies.

  1. Ever since Galileo, scientists have weaned themselves from the belief that nature is projectif3 and have committed themselves to the search for “true knowledge,” which comes only from “the systematic confrontation of logic with experience.” Meanwhile, according to Monod, all philosophers—aside from one or two recent existentialists, notably Camus—have clung to “animistic” and “vitalistic” presuppositions, in order to justify “various mythical histories or philosophical ontogenies” as the support for preconceived value systems:

Ever since its birth in the Ionian Islands almost three thousand years ago, Western philosophy has been divided between two seemingly opposed attitudes…. From Plato to Whitehead and from Heraclitus to Hegel and Marx, it is clear that metaphysical epistemologies were always closely bound up with their authors’ ethical and political biases. These ideological edifices, represented as self-evident to reason, were actually a posteriori constructions designed to justify preconceived ethico-political theories….

The evolutionary biologist has at last undercut this “old covenant,” linking nature and value; and has made it necessary for scientists to construct a “new covenant,” in which science will take over from philosophy and teach men to live by values free of any cosmic sanction.

  1. Not only has science “blasted” traditional value systems “at the root.” More important, we can hope to cure the mal du siècle—the “profound ache” which afflicts the “modern soul” in its distress at the breakdown of the “old covenant”—only by constructing for ourselves a new system of ethical and political beliefs fashioned on the “objective” methodology of natural science itself.

So far as the biochemistry takes us, Monod’s arguments for his first thesis are cogent and beautifully presented. In this respect, his book is first-rate popularization: explaining, in terms the interested layman will easily grasp, how the genetically transmitted “variations” of organic life are represented on the cellular level in the “coded” structures of the nucleic acids, and how the production and activities of specific proteins underlie the functional characteristics of the developed organism.

Over the last fifteen to twenty years molecular biologists have unraveled in great detail the roles of these two groups of substances in the cellular and physiological economy of all organisms; and the outcome (as Monod rightly feels) is among the great intellectual achievements of our generation. Further, its immediate consequences are just what Monod declares. If our new understanding of these mechanisms is as well-founded as it seems, no process of “directed mutation” (so-called “orthogenesis”) can be conceived by which the genetic material transmitted from one generation in a population to the next is capable of reflecting and responding to the current ecological demands of an environment. Organic variation is in all cases the effect of causes unrelated to environmental demands. Later populations end up being “better adapted” than earlier ones only through the selective action of environmental factors.

This argument is very powerful. The success of the new molecular biology faces the few professional biologists who still support orthogenesis with grave new obstacles, and increases the burden of proof they have to overcome. But even at this early stage there is already a touch of exaggeration in Monod’s presentation that puts one on guard.

One’s hesitations arise at three separate points. To begin with, Monod makes excessive play with the “chance” character of organic variation, which he contrasts with the “necessity” of the subsequent natural selection. The mechanisms of variation that produce mutations are, he declares, “random,” “fortuitous,” and “blind”; the processes of selection by which some mutations adapt and others do not are “implacable,” “demanding,” and “certain.” Yet while Monod’s discussion of the differences between variation and selection is in many respects subtle and discriminating—he does not make the common mistake of assuming that the explicability of evolutionary change implies its predictability, but insists on the importance of unpredictable historical contingencies within organic evolution—the scientific case he has made out neither demands, nor in fact justifies, the use of this kind of language.

What neo-Darwinism and biochemistry between them make almost certain is that the mechanisms of variation are entirely “decoupled” from (i.e., causally independent of) the processes of selection. It is this decoupling that demolishes the case for orthogenesis, rather than any supposed element of “randomness” in variation itself. If we accept only this causal independence, together with the early isolation of the germ cells from environmental influence, the argument against orthogenesis will be as strong as ever, even if all mutation and recombination take place in a strictly causal—i.e., “necessary”—manner. So far as Monod’s first thesis goes, therefore, there is no reason to insist, as he does, on the “chance” character of variation.

  1. 1

    This inaugural lecture has been published in English translation as an Occasional Paper of the Salk Institute of Biology, La Jolla.

  2. 2

    On this, see also Monod’s address to the British Society for Social Responsibility in Science, November 26-28, 1970, in The Social Impact of Modern Biology, edited by Watson Fuller (London: Routledge, 1971).

  3. 3

    This word causes understandable difficulty to Monod’s translator, who ends by rendering his phrase, objets doués d’un projet, as “objects endowed with a purpose or project.” Significantly, neither “purposive” nor “functional” will bear all the weight that Monod places on the term projectif: for the good reason that he is using the term to revive an intellectual confusion that Ernst Mayr dispelled for most biologists, with his distinction between “teleonomy” and “teleology.” Thus, in true French scholastic fashion, Monod concludes his first chapter by presenting as “a flagrant epistemological contradiction” a set of paradoxes that are created entirely by the ambiguities built into his own use of the terms projet and téléonomie.

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